I have discussed the Tweed Ring and the changing views (or slightly more balanced views) of William Maghear Tweed (see "The Great Adventure: The Man Who Stole New York" and "Up in Central Park"). The episode on "Cavalcade of America" here dealt with Tweed's fall too, but it put the emphasis on one of the men who helped bring it about, and helped revolutionize political cartooning in America as a result. This was Thomas Nast, the Bavarian-born immigrant who came here and ended fighting a political machine. He is played by Robert Cornthwaite, and I note that Howard Freeman played Tweed. I'm sorry I have never seen this program - Freeman is a favorite character actor of mine, in whatever he tackles. He probably enjoyed the juicy role of Tweed. The "Tiger" in the title, of course, refers to one of Nast's inventions: the "Tammany (Hall) Tiger".
Before Nast came onto the scene in the 1850s and early 1860s, there had been cartoons in America. The best known ones were in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, when the personality and issues of those two administrations opened up a lot of creativity. Jackson's enemies showed him as "King Andrew I" because of his tyrannical nature against his foes. Jackson's friends showed the Bank of the United States as an old woman vomiting up coins, while her son Nicholas Biddle tried to help her on her sick bed, and her three physicians ("Drs." Clay, Webster, and Calhoun) discussed treatment. Clever, but none of the cartoonists made themselves a household name.
Nast joined the staff of Harper's Weekly, and during the Civil War did a clever cartoon or two on the issues of the war in every issue. When, in 1864, it looked like the Peace Democrats would make a peace with the Confederacy recognizing it as a separate country, he drew Jefferson Davis in a military uniform, stiff and arrogant, shaking hands with a crippled Union soldier over the boarder of the two states, with a widowed Northern woman holding two sobbing children behind the Union soldier, and an African - American slave family cowering behind the arrogant figure representing Davis. You can see that Nast pulled no punches.
Nast was a Republican, but keep in mind that in this period (say from 1860 - 1880) it was the Republicans, for all their flaws, who were the party of liberalism - the slavery states were all Democratic, and although the Democrats could point to men like Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson as their leaders who had spread democratic dogma, they spread it to white males, and all four Presidents were slave owners (and Jackson was also an Indian hater). So it would be that Nast hit hard for Republican policies, and hit hard against the Democrats who were asses or worse. In fact, his invention of the symbols of the two major parties, the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, says much more than we think - we accept them because they've been used for over a hundred years now, but the "Democratic donkey" is really calling Democrats a bunch of political fools. The elephant is large - suggesting the overwhelming size of the "Grand Old Party" in the 1870s.
Nast slowly turned his attention onto Tweed as the man rose to be Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall. Tweed, with his 300 pound physique, his heavy beard and long nose, was a dream figure for a cartoonist. So was his Mayor, former District Attorney A. Oakley Hall, with his beard and pince-nez eyeglasses, or leading alderman Peter "Brains" Sweeney, with his frazzled hair, or city comptroller Richard "Judge" Connally, with his plump belly. It was a dream come true. Week after week Nast did devilishly damaging cartoons of Tweed and his associates, showing them as Roman aristocrats watching women being fed to the "tigers", or as vultures, anxiously looking at bolts of lightning aimed at them from providence. The cartoons (whatever you think of their fairness) remain marvelous.
Tweed had been attacked in the columns of Louis John Jennings' New York Times, but he never cared because Tweed's constituents did not read the Times. But they saw those funny pictures. And those pictures did raise questions. Tweed offered Nast a huge sum if he'd return to Europe to study art. Nast refused.
Because of a re-evaluation of Tweed going on today (less the thief, more the victim of political foes and the man who created modern New York City), Nast is re-evaluated. Just as the points against Tweed are softened, it is pointed out (somewhat unfairly) that Nast was an anti-Irish bigot, and that his interest in African-Americans did not prevent him from stereotyping them. One can't deny some of his blows are questionable: on an issue of school books for children being controlled in part by Roman Catholic clergy, Nast showed "the modern Ganges" (the Catholic clergy as alligators and the children left to be devoured by them). Hard stuff that. But in 1870, with the recent decision of the Pope to declare all Papal decisions infallible, Nast was confronting a questionable point of view on the other side that had the ear of Tammany Hall (and thus of Tweed). We may not like Nast's work here, but I wonder if we all accept papal infallibility? His views of the Irish were colored by their political support of Tammany Hall. The stereotyping of African-Americans is there in some of the later cartoons, but in the ones of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Nast was not bigoted. Look at his images of African-Americans following various southern city riots in the Reconstruction period. He's completely sympathetic.
Tweed eventually fell. Nast went onto other topics. He would create the modern American view of old Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus. He would continue doing cartoons into the 1890s. In 1902 he was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to a consulship in Ecuador. Unfortunately he died there that year.
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